When I told people that I was going to New York for the Papal visit, those who know me understood that I’m not coming for mass, a blessing, or a chance to see the wildly popular pope.
I’m here because I am a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
From the ages of 15 to 17, I was sexually abused by my choir teacher at a large Catholic high school in southern California. By the time the abuse ended, I was 17, pregnant, and had a sexually transmitted disease. Even worse: school and church officials knew about my abuser and knew he had other victims. But they did nothing to stop him or help us. In fact, they let him resign with a glowing letter of recommendation.
I suffered the fate of many survivors. I was blamed. I lost my friends and my family. I stayed silent for 15 years because I was ashamed and alone.
But in 2003, I was able to use the civil courts to expose my abuser and uncover more than 200 pages of then-secret documents about my case. They included a signed confession by my abuser, signed documents from school officials, and a letters to and from the diocese on how to keep the matter “quiet.”
That’s when I found my voice. And this week, I came to New York to use it.
As the Pope begins his long-anticipated visit to the United States, I and other victims of sexual abuse and their supporters are frustrated with what we call the “Francis Effect.”
Pope Francis, with his widely perceived humility and hard-charging public relations machine, is a hero to the Catholic faithful. His progressive views on otherwise dogmatic church policies (divorce, LGBTQ issues, poverty, and climate) have pleased many Catholics, who felt that the Vatican was “out of touch” with the lives of people around the world.
But when it comes to the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by clerics—and the cover-up of those crimes—the “Francis Effect” is dangerous. It is a tranquilizer that is keeping Catholics and our nation’s lawmakers—and politicians around the world—from truly seeing the huge scope and scale of the continuing sex abuse crisis.
There have been child sexual abuse and cover-up scandals in every U.S. state. Every congressional district has seen sex crimes against children at the hands of Catholic priests, nuns, employees and volunteers. The cover-up has occurred in nearly every single Catholic diocese in the United States. This is not old news.
These are just some recent examples.
In 2012, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph was found guilty of child endangerment. He was convicted of covering up for a priest in his diocese who made and distributed child pornography. Instead of calling the police when he learned of the crimes, Finn sent the priest to a convent and hid the cleric’s hard drive from authorities.
Finn remained a bishop for more than two years after his conviction. He was finally allowed to resign a few months ago, although he retains all of the honors of being a bishop. There was no statement by Pope Francis.
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Archbishop John Nienstedt was also allowed to quietly resign earlier this year, after victims used civil lawsuits to expose a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse. The cover-up continued into this year.
The Vatican made no statement on Nienstedt’s resignation, even though local prosecutors have filed misdemeanor criminal charges against the Archdiocese.
In Milwaukee, the archdiocese is viciously fighting victims of sexual abuse who filed sex abuse lawsuits in bankruptcy court. Years ago, in anticipation of victims’ coming forward, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan transferred $60 million into a cemetery fund with the express intent of keeping the money away from victims. Fortunately, a judge disagreed with the strategy.
In other states—including New York—bishops are spending millions of dollars to lobby lawmakers to vote against victim-friendly laws that would extend criminal and civil statutes of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse, not just victims in the Catholic Church.
These examples are just the most recent and public abuses. In the past five years, there have been scandals in California, Hawaii, Alaska, New Mexico, and almost every other state in the union.
And throughout all of this, Francis has stayed silent. In fact, Pope Francis has not exposed a single predator cleric or a single enabling bishop. That means that he is not a reformer. He is a part of the problem.
Silence never protected a single child or helped a survivor heal.
This is a serious public safety issue. But child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not a complex problem. It has a very simple solution.
Unfortunately, it’s a solution that Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy do not want to hear.
So what is the simple solution? Serious action.
Pope Francis is the most powerful man in the Catholic Church. With a simple statement, he can do more to protect children than any other single individual on earth.
He can open up the Vatican files on sexual abuse—files that have been consolidated inside the Vatican walls since 2001. All he needs to do is open the cabinets and turn everything over to the public and civil and criminal authorities.
Francis can openly admonish and remove all titles and honors from men who abuse kids and those who cover-up the crimes. Although Finn and Nienstedt have resigned, they still have all the perks (and a lavish lifestyle, to boot).
Cardinals Bernard Law and Roger Mahony (who oversaw cover-up scandals in Boston and Los Angeles, respectively) still live opulent lives and command respect from Catholics and the Vatican. Francis can make a public statement about these men’s crimes, strip them of their titles, and make them live lives of poverty and prayer. That would be a good start.
Francis can demand that any cleric who has sexually abused a child be removed from the priesthood and sent to a remote, secured facility where they are monitored by third parties.
This is essential: recent investigations in Latin America show that children in the Pope’s former backyard are ripe fodder for known and admitted predators. Other predator priests across the U.S. have been “cut loose” from the church and set loose on unsuspecting communities. These men need to be kept away from children—now.
How many more children have to be abused? How many more crimes have to be covered up before there is real action to help survivors and protect children right now?
So as Pope Francis lands at the White House and embraced by President Obama (whose chief of staff’s brother is the priest who covered up many of the crimes in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese), survivors are frustrated. The cover-up is current. Children are still at risk.
That is why I am in New York with other survivors, speaking out and demanding action.
We were vulnerable once, but our voices have made me strong. And we will remain vigilant until the job is done.